Theater: “Belleville” Is Beautiful . . . Or Is It? (A Study in the Suspense of Trust)

Photo/Joan Marcus

Photo/Joan Marcus

Imagine that you’ve been out drinking and have returned home with your husband. You foolishly cut your foot on a misplaced knife, and your scream causes your neighbors–who are also your best friends–over to your apartment. Upon flinging upon the door, they see your husband mopping a small amount of blood and vomit off the floor and when he picks the knife up, they understand that he’s simply carrying it into the kitchen to be cleaned. Now imagine that the people who burst into your apartment are your landlords, and while they know you, you’re still, to some degree, a stranger. When your husband picks up the knife, then, they cannot help but flinch: the implicit trust that causes your friends to assume the best has not been established, and therefore, the fear of the worst persists. Now go a step further: imagine that earlier that day, you caught the man you’re married to, whom you’ve known for at least five years, jerking off to some rather disturbing porn instead of being at work. He’s evasive when it come to everything except how much he loves you, and he’s smoking way more pot than usual. And though it’s true that you happen to be tapering off your anti-anxiety medication, that you’re too self-consciously American to feel comfortable in your new Paris home, and that the upcoming Christmas holiday is just one more emotionally fraught weight on your shoulders, you start to wonder just how well you know your husband. When he picks up that knife and attempts to bandage your toe, perhaps you, too, reflexively pull back. Trust has been broken, and from that crumbling foundation comes the soul-crushing suspense of Amy Herzog’s Belleville. While the husband in question, Zack (Greg Keller), appears to very much love his wife, Abby (Maria Dizzia), manic-depressive (planter’s) warts and all, he’s also four months behind on the rent, and his commonplace cheer is starting to seem sinister.

Don’t mistake Belleville for a genre thriller; instead, see how easily a relationship drama risks veering into choppy waters when you so much as hint that the fundamental truths binding it together are not so fundamental, let alone fun. Herzog’s writing is as naturally crisp here as in her brilliant After the Revolution and 4000 Miles (I’m sorry to have missed The Great God Pan), but if the nature of these more sedate plays failed to captured your attention, they now hold it hostage, especially under Anne Kauffman’s fluid, so-comfortable-it-hurts direction. (She’s got a real talent for finding frisson in the ordinary, as in The Thugs, Maple and Vine, and Detroit.) The suspense is merely a means to an end, and the most notable effect of Julia C. Lee’s homey Parisian apartment is the way in which several key rooms (the bathroom and bedroom) cannot be seen; the penultimate scene intentionally places the action behind closed doors, so as to emphasize how differently things might go if we didn’t hide parts of ourselves away, or pressure ourselves to constantly walk around trying to put our best face on things.

Ultimately, Belleville may be closer to a tragedy than a thriller, for despite all the ambiguity, there’s the sense that, broken and needy as Zack and Abby are in their own unique ways, the two really love — or at least need — one another, whatever hurtful things they may say. Dizzia and Keller certainly play it that way, with a forceful chemistry from the first moment the two mutually tell the story of how they met to their landlord Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) right up until the end, when the two are seducing one another with ulterior motives. Keller makes Zack’s panic a palpable thing, with trust giving way to hope giving way to worry giving way to fear as he stands outside a locked bathroom, unable to get his wife to respond; Dizzia understands Abby’s deep need for affection/attention, whether it’s expressed as simply as homesickness and her desire to constantly phone home or as emotionally packed as in the way she picks out gifts (and decorates the apartment): watch her eyes genuinely brighten at the sight of a Christmas tree.

Bellville makes only one misstep: the final scene, which focuses on Alioune and his wife, Amina (Pascale Armand), and is performed in French, shifts the tone and feels stage-y.  The final line, “Allons-y. On a beaucoup de choses à faire,” feels closer to something you’d get out of Beckett than Herzog. It’s not unbelievable, not without value, but it’s thematically different from everything that precedes it, as if a scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead suddenly took over Hamlet. Far better, perhaps, to close on the image of a locked door and the people just outside it, a distance all at once unknowable between them.

Complementary ticket; Orchestra, F16.

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2 thoughts on “Theater: “Belleville” Is Beautiful . . . Or Is It? (A Study in the Suspense of Trust)

  1. August, thanks for the kind words. Sort of the double-edged sword of reading a positive review: now you gotta go see it. (And I know: the list of books and films I have to read and see right now is only getting longer, and Hulu is such an enabler when it comes to catching up on all the stuff my DVR long since ran out of room to record.)

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